The first thing I did when I heard the unsettling news Monday morning was to run out to the liquor store and buy a 1.75-liter bottle of Maker's Mark—not because I needed a drink at 9:30 a.m., but because I wanted to secure some of the original proof Bourbon from Loretto, Kentucky, before it sold out.
In case you haven't heard: on Saturday Maker's Mark sent out emails to its legion of Ambassadors informing them that after more than 50 years that the company was changing the proof on its Bourbon from 90 to 84 (or 45 percent alcohol by volume to 42 percent).
Given my well-documented love affair with this Bourbon that is made with wheat in place of rye, I immediately worked through the familiar stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and buying a bottle. Then I decided I needed to put in a call to the source itself to get the whole story. So I called Rob Samuels, who has served as the COO of Maker's Mark since his father, William Samuels Jr., stepped down as CEO in 2011.
Monday night at 6:30, I spoke to Rob, who had spent a hectic few days talking to reporters and friends of the brand, trying to quell concerns that the whisky (Maker's Mark's prefers to spell it the Scottish way-without the "e") would be changing.
Maker's had been a small brand, known mostly in Kentucky, until the 1980s, when it began growing by about 8.5 percent a year and became ubiquitous across America as well as being well-known in many foreign markets. The problem, Rob says, started about 18 months ago, when popularity started creating shortages. They managed down inventories, eliminating distribution in certain countries, but still the top sizes were not available in some markets during November and December, the company's two biggest months. "This is different than anything we've ever experienced."
Maker's Mark has been on a tear lately to make more Bourbon by running the distillery even on Sundays (unusual in Kentucky) and adding more warehouses to store the liquor for its six- to eight-year maturation. Several months ago they started looking at other ways to solve the problem, while "maintaining the taste profile and each step of the process exactly today as it has always been. This was the alternative to meet demand." Lowering alcohol content stretches volumes, because it is achieved it by adding more water during bottling. Maker's Mark and almost all whiskeys are diluted to some extent-the minimum proof being 80, or 40 percent alcohol. But naturally the option of further watering down Maker's has not sat well with the many alarmed bartenders and consumers who have weighed in since the announcement. Rob says, however, that concerned calls have been fewer than the ones received when shelves were empty.
After my own concerned call I come away feeling a bit better about the situation than I did immediately. (Although, I will closely guard what 90-proof Maker's I do have.)
First of all, Maker's deserves credit for full transparency as a number of brands have changed formulations in the past without tipping their hands, letting consumers find out by careful reading of the label rather than by corporate announcement. For instance, in 2005, Cardhu, a single-malt Scotch whisky, temporarily became a blend of malts built around Cardhu with a subtle change of the label to read "pure malt." The move came after the parent company had been faced with shortages when Cardhu became so sought after that it couldn't keep up with its demand as a single malt as well as an important component in the vastly popular blend Johnnie Walker. The result of the change was an outcry among whisky purists, and Cardhu—under any name—was taken off American shelves until it returned as a single malt in 2010. It also caused the Scotch Whisky Association to change its labeling rules to describe such marriages of single malts as "blended malts" and not "vatted" or "pure" malts, terms that had been widely used.
Another example such instance came when Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 dropped its own proof from 90 to 86 proof in 1987 and then to 80 proof in 2002 without any fanfare. The reason, the company said, was that modern drinkers preferred a less alcoholic drink. Any savings from dilution, it claimed, was cancelled out by the expense of having to change the label—hmmm. Wild Turkey also recently introduced a lower-strength rye (81 proof) at the same time as shortages of its 101 rye were being felt. The jury is out as to whether this will be permanent, but it is a change that has been very clear to consumers as the new version is boldly labeled Wild Turkey 81 Rye Whiskey.
Anyway, my first question was: would lower proof result in a lower quality Maker's Mark? Predictably, Rob says, "No." He says the distillery went through repeated tasting tests to make sure that they could maintain the flavor we all know as Maker's Mark at the diluted strength. Maker's, made since 1954 at the National Historic Landmark Burks' Distillery, is essentially a handmade product, distilled at low proof (110) to preserve flavor. Batches are made in lots of 20 barrels, which are circulated around the warehouses to take advantage of the best climates at different times in the aging process. In 2002, when it doubled capacity, it took pains to maintain its small-batch ethos by replicating the existing 19th century equipment, not enlarging it.
Citing that commitment to consistency, Rob adamantly states, "The taste is exactly the same as it's always been." But what else would he say? And since I haven't tasted the diluted product I can't weigh in as of yet. (The new Maker's, which first appeared this week, will roll out over the next month in different areas as the need arises.) "We would ask consumers," says Rob, "before they judge to taste." And, of course, I will judge (and in this space) as soon as I get my hands on some.
My next question came from the cheapskate in me. "If the whisky is diluted will there be a break in price?" Rob says, "No," although he notes that the price has risen continuously over the years and there will be no increase this year. So, depending on your accounting method, I guess that can be taken as a victory of sorts.
But what about the future? Can he envision a time when capacity rises or demand slackens when Maker's will return to the original 90-proof strength? Again, "No." Drink up, boys. Abstaining won't do anything to bring back the original.
Then I started to fret that the company might—assuming all goes well at the 84-proof strength reduction—consider further reductions. Not to worry, counters Rob. At the same time they were testing at the 42 percent levels, they also tried 40 and 41 percent versions of Maker's. The panels were able to discern a difference at that dilution, so they were deemed unacceptable.
"Essentially, the most important thing we do is to maintain consistency year after year." Here's hoping that the proof is in the whisky.